The Art of Memoir - Mary Karr (2015)

Chapter 11. The Visionary Maxine Hong Kingston

We know the truth not only by reason but also by heart.

Blaise Pascal, Pensées

Maxine Hong Kingston’s oddly ethereal vision helped forge the genre of memoir as we know it, and her Woman Warrior, published in 1975, stands today on the shelves of most college bookstores and libraries. After three decades of teaching her, I still marvel at how she enthralls my students. The two prongs of her massive talent mirror the two sides of the story’s conflict—her truth-hungry, feminist, Americanized self does battle with her mother’s repressive notions of Chinese ladylikeness and humility.

From the book’s first breath, the writer betrays a confidence from her mother, a secret born of ancient cultural values that define what being a woman should embody—mostly eating a big shit sandwich with a servile smile on your face. “Better to raise geese than girls” is one piece of wisdom, and infanticide for girl babies is accepted practice. So the writer sets her own blabby, American-educated mouth against her mother’s traditional ideas of feminine modesty, clan loyalty, and demure comportment—her struggle throughout the book. The book opens with both the mother’s admonishing voice and—in the very act of reporting that voice—the daughter’s broken covenant. In this exquisite ventriloquism, the two opponents start off speaking through the same mouth:

“You must not tell anyone,” my mother said, “what I am about to tell you. In China your father had a sister who killed herself. She jumped into the family well. We say that your father has all brothers because it is as if she had never been born.”

Before this nameless aunt drowns herself in the well, she turns up in the fields pregnant, though her husband has been gone too long to have fathered the baby. In a savage, hallucinatory attack, the villagers ransack the family home, stealing their rice and slaughtering their livestock to punish the family for the aunt’s shame. That night the aunt bears her bastard in a pigsty, and in the morning the family finds her and the baby “plugging up the family well.”

Hong Kingston’s mother relays the aunt’s story to warn the young author—who’s just gotten her period and thus reached the age to bring shame—away from sex, away from appetite, away from opening her mouth at all. To be forgotten is to be condemned to an eternal hell without family. Forgotten ancestors are “hungry ghosts,” unfed because they’re unremembered.

Part of Hong Kingston’s originality springs from her poetic marriage of form and content: the conflict raging between the two cultures within the young speaker shapes the book’s flip-flops between realism and fantasy. Transgressing against the Chinese tradition of female silence, she spills family secrets and displays a hunger for truth that makes her almost as dangerous as her shamed aunt. She appropriates as a birthright her mother’s method of fable or “talk story” to fantasize about who that lost aunt might have been. Hong Kingston makes it clear she’s not doling out facts, just speculating on the dramatic possibilities. At first she imagines the drowned aunt as a rape victim, assaulted in the field, too ashamed to complain. Or maybe she was raped by a family member. Hong Kingston also fashions her as an outlaw: a vain and lovesick tart, “a wild woman” who “kept rollicking company.”

Saving the aunt from oblivion, Hong Kingston saves herself from being constricted by the old ways like a foot bound in silk.

I alone devote pages of paper to her, though not origamied into houses and clothes. I do not think she always means me well. I am telling on her, and she was a spite suicide, drowning herself in the drinking water. The Chinese are always very frightened of the drowned one, whose weeping ghost, wet hair hanging down and skin bloated, waits silently by the water to pull down a substitute.

Later, in adolescence, Hong Kingston begins to try to turn herself “American feminine”: proud, standing tall with toes out, not the humble and silent, hunched-over and pigeon-toed “Chinese feminine.”

What is Chinese and what is movies. The danger in China was the ancestors. The danger in America are the children. They inherit the ghosts’ sins and are bloated and hungry.

She grows into a recklessly defiant daughter and a school bully, trying to pinch and torment a shy student into speech.

Hong Kingston’s lurid fantasy sequences echo her mother’s supernatural tales. While reviews at the time likened passages of The Woman Warrior to the then-new Latin American magical realism of, say, Gabriel García Márquez, Hong Kingston’s work is far more supernatural than realistic. Facing danger, her mother could metamorphose into a dragon: “[She] fanned out her dragon claws and riffled her red sequin scales.” She flew over cloudscapes.

Contrast such transformations with García Márquez’s grounded-in-physical-reality scenarios from One Hundred Years of Solitude, which opens with the explainable “magic” of scientific invention—ice in the tropics, say, or a magnet so powerful it draws nails from houses as it’s dragged down the street. In García Márquez, a dead man’s dentures sprout yellow flowers in his toothglass, and butterflies appear in the presence of a great beauty. “Surreal?” García Márquez once quipped. “That’s how life is in South America.” He makes the magical credible, then, step by step, leads the reader into the ghostly.

Hong Kingston’s book feels dreamier, bolder in how it challenges a reader’s credulity. She starts off with physically possible events, then eventually you must leap into an enchanted village structure where “spirits shimmered among the live creatures.” But given how the writer wrestles throughout her California childhood with the mysterious constraints of the ancient world, the ghostly comes off as the truest way to render her internal dramas. She doesn’t know what to believe and what’s myth. The family actually refers to their American neighbors as “ghosts”; it’s family wisdom that, as an emigrant child, she’s being devoured by this ghost culture, so her parents hide things from her.

Sometimes I hated the ghosts for not letting us talk; sometimes I hated the secrecy of the Chinese. “Don’t tell,” said my parents, though we couldn’t tell if we wanted to because we didn’t know. They would not tell us children because we had been born among ghosts, were taught by ghosts, and were ourselves ghost-like.

Mysterious rituals are enacted and never talked about. At dinner, “Mother would pour Seagram’s 7 into the cups and, after a while, pour it back into the bottle. Never explaining.”

Ironically, the adoption of her mother’s fantasy technique also serves this memoirist as an unlikely form of discretion. Because of it, the family secrets are kept, in a way; the book is a demimonde where reality and myth blur.

That uncertain whimsy in another writer’s book would rankle or bore, coming off as digressive or decorative. Attempting to use Hong Kingston’s method myself, I could too easily hear a reader saying, Get back to the real story, as I tried to bamboozle her with pages of witchy spirits and conjecture. But Hong Kingston dissects its cultural source and context. As she explains how the fantastic became real in her household, we accept the mystical instant as wholly natural, as in this stranger-than-fiction trip to the drive-in:

There was the woman next door who was chatty one moment—inviting us children to our first “sky movie”—and shut up the rest. Then we would see silver heat rise from her body; it solidified before our eyes. . . . Her husband threw the loudspeaker out the window and drove home fast.

The girl matter-of-factly watches this angry spirit rise from a woman’s body. Few other writers could get away with this—it’d feel like technique. In Hong Kingston’s hands, it comes off as “true,” because the world she’s constructed operates that way.

She takes neighborhood rumor about a corpse-strewn landscape and locates it in an actual physical place. Once you accept this fantastic premise, believing in the local witch isn’t far off.

People had been known to have followed hobo paths [into a slough] and parted the stalks to find dead bodies—hoboes, Chinese suicides, children. . . . Kids said [this madwoman] was a witch capable of witch deeds, unspeakable boilings and tearings apart and transformations if she caught us. “She’ll touch you on the shoulder, and you’ll not be you anymore. You’d be a piece of glass winking and blinking to people on the sidewalk.” She came riding to the slough with a broom between her legs, and she had powdered one cheek red and one white. Her hair stood up and out to the side in dry masses, black even though she was old. She wore a pointed hat and layers of capes, shawls, sweaters buttoned at the throat like capes, the sleeves flying behind like sausage skins.

She starts the awful scene of realistically dead bodies among the cattails. Then she moves to apocrypha—kids saying she could transform you. Then she launches into the fabulist.

Yet such fables tell truths that would otherwise go unspoken. In a culture that may strike an American reader as shadowed by concealment, the mythic serves as a form of sidewinding candor. Once Hong Kingston shows you how to read her, you don’t care whether you’re in mythville or on reality.com because some part of you has yielded to her methods. Over the course of the book, you master swimming fluidly between both realms.

Some scenes are so thematically perfect and physically bizarre, the reader doubts them though they’re possible. Before Hong Kingston started speaking in her American school, she claims, she took an IQ test and secured “a zero IQ.” As part of a cure for her daughter’s silence, which meant failure in her American school, Hong Kingston’s mother went into the young writer’s mouth with scissors, cutting the small membrane under her tongue called the frenum, thus “freeing her tongue” for speech. The particularity of the event argues for actuality, but its perfect match with the book’s themes of feminine silence argues for myth.

While I couldn’t directly copy Hong Kingston’s method in my own first book, studying her gave me the courage to use the Texas tall tales I’d overheard from my daddy and his gambling buddies. After a cold ride in a boxcar, a man finds a frozen, slightly fuzzy object rolling from his pant leg. Thawed in a frying pan, it makes a fart noise. But such a joke from me comes off as just that: a joke. No one would call it a witnessed event. Hong Kingston’s mystical swordswomen somehow become living creatures.

The truth of a writer’s self—Hong Kingston’s penchant for fabulism, say—has a way of bobbing up on the pages like a badly weighted corpse. You may as well bring the reader to the swampy grave from the git-go.

Back in the 1970s, Hong Kingston transgressed against a culture of silence to overlay Chinese myth and ancient texts onto a modern landscape. It was a feminist act, revealing secrets in order to free herself and the women of her clan from the silence and obscurity to which a misogyny thousands of years old would have relegated them. While the book hit best-seller lists and got raves, its writer was often trounced in reviews by male Asian scriveners whose own lesser works sank into deserved obscurity. Frank Chin scolded her and my friend Amy Tan (among others) for restating white stereotypes in their work. Tan recently noted vis-à-vis Chin’s attacks that “Being marginalized by the reading public was adjudged authentic by him, whereas being read by the mainstream invariably meant you’d sold out.”

While I can’t speak with authority to the issues of inequality Chin seems (rightly) fired up about, I must defend Hong Kingston’s right to represent her own Chinese girlhood any way she damn pleases, without checking with the male thought police first. Amy Tan put it this way: “Sure, you can establish tidy moral or political standards for how race is represented on the page: it’s called propaganda.” Propaganda seeks to destroy art in order to sanitize culture. Hong Kingston’s Woman Warrior has outlived the past’s more sexist environment to win the ardor of generations. It’s a timeless monument to memoir’s possibilities.